The Unscathed Christmas

When bad things don’t happen to good people

By Bill Fields

Looking back on the Christmas season, I realize that we were lucky.

It wasn’t just that our family had a roof over our heads, that we always had enough food and presents to make us happy, or that we never let disputes occurring in our spirited Monopoly games that were an entertainment centerpiece escalate into unpleasantness. (The adults at the table even indulged very young me when I wanted to be able to put houses and hotels on Baltic Avenue even though I didn’t own Mediterranean.)

Although a vicious intestinal bug did hit us one year with the ferocity of a Dick Butkus tackle, the miracle was that we survived each holiday season without serious harm. We didn’t have a fireplace, so there was no danger of a stray ember setting fire to G.I. Joe’s fatigues or tissue paper that had swaddled a something new from Collins department store. In place of the real thing, after one of my mother’s largest lapses in judgment, we were the proud owners of imitation logs illuminated by orange incandescent bulbs. The “flames” flickered from foil circles that rotated near the lights, although one would have needed a lot of enhanced eggnog to feel warm.

Our fire threat came from another source. We had two sets of Christmas lights, those to decorate the camellia in the front yard and those to string on the Christmas tree in our living room. They were labeled “outdoor” and “indoor,” but the difference was less than that between Carolina and sky blue. The large bulbs on each strand seemed to approximate the heat of a glowing briquette charring a steak.

Before moving on to white pines and later firs or spruces, we were a cedar tree clan. Even if we regularly filled the red stand with water, those things would get pretty crispy. It’s a wonder there was never a real fire next to the faux logs, not that there wasn’t a close call. The same angel that graced the top of our trees for many years — well into the era of tiny lights that didn’t heat up — bore a melted spot from her years of service with the big bulbs.

We skirted a lot of trouble around Christmas time, when you think about it. Nobody crashed when a neighbor got a mini bike. We avoided getting hit by a car when testing new tennis rackets by playing a set with an imaginary net out in the street. Lawn darts landed only in the rye overseed. Bruises and scrapes were the worst that came from tackle football. Dad somehow managed to get the barbecued chicken done when he cooked out in the dark. 

Indoors, there were potential hazards everywhere. Owing to my father’s job at Proctor-Silex, there was gifting of irons for a few years, but no one ever dropped one of the heavy devices on themselves in their zeal to unwrap such a utilitarian present. Nobody tripped over the Hot Wheels track after I set it up to emulate the Rockingham drag strip, but I heard a few curse words when an adult stepped on a plastic soldier or Tinker Toy. 

Santa Claus never forgot to bring bags of walnuts, pecans and Brazil nuts. The pick that went along with the nutcracker could have been classified as a weapon of war so sharp was the point, but we escaped with minor puncture wounds for which a little mercurochrome would do the trick. A dab of butter took care of any burns from rogue Crisco escaping a cast-iron skillet.

But the kitchen hazards didn’t stop at the stove. Man was going into space, but he also had time to invent the electric knife. The whir of the blades was part of the Christmas soundtrack as much as “Jingle Bells” or “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” Mom worried as Dad took on a turkey or a ham or a roast. There was the occasional grinding of metal on platter if he misjudged his cut, but fortunately the only red on the table came from the apple rings.  PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.

A New Home for the Holidays

A New Home for the Holidays

Building traditions and contemporary elegance

By Deborah Salomon     Photographs by John Gessner

When floral designer Matt Hollyfield meets a prospective client, he predicts her taste by reading her clothing: fine leather tans and browns, deep forest greens, a variety of textures whisper “Ralph Lauren,” a preference Melinda Taylor confirms. Her unusual new home in the Eastlake section of the Country Club of North Carolina won’t tempt Santa. No candy canes, angels or blue-and-silver snowflakes either. Instead, Hollyfield suggests wreaths, swags, tabletop arrangements and two trees featuring reds gone scarlet, blues in a muted navy and burnished golds. A close inspection reveals equestrian details. Melinda doesn’t ride but loves horses as a spectator sport . . . so why not, given the proximity?

This Christmas will be the first in many years when Melinda and her husband, Doug, are the hosts rather than guests, usually of Melinda’s mother. Decorations are in place. Their home is ready.

A new house is like a blank canvas on which to paint Christmas; no outdated traditions, no faded ornaments. But the Taylors’ second home, built for eventual retirement, is perfect on multiple levels, starting with starting afresh. Because their primary residence is still Charleston, West Virginia, all the furnishings, equipment and fixtures are new and in accordance with Melinda’s master plan: a simple but elegant low country contemporary farmhouse wearing cream, sand, leather, smoky gray, green and brown hues sparked with metallic gold in unexpected places — all planned and executed by Melinda, an insurance executive by trade, a designer by avocation, and a details/neat freak by admission.

Her whites glow. Pink azaleas were removed and replaced with white to extend the neutral palette. Even Beau, their yellow Lab, is vanilla. Gold accents pop in the custom-made range hood and the metallic gold kitchen sink with its line-of-sight view of the lake beyond the veranda.

More than a decade ago, Melinda and Doug began thinking about a retirement house, first in Asheville, which proved too chilly for Doug’s year-round golf aspirations. “We wanted it to feel more vacation-y than our two-story Colonial brick (in West Virginia),” Melinda says. Months later they drove to Pinehurst for a look. CCNC checked enough boxes for them to buy a lot and choose a model home. Construction, however, was delayed 10 years while Melinda underwent treatment for cancer, then COVID happened. Once she was declared cancer-free and their twin sons, John Logan and Preston, were off to college, the Taylors broke ground on their 5,000-square-foot, four bedroom, four-and-a-half bathroom vacation home, with dream home specialist Huntley Design Build wearing the hardhats.

Obtaining materials during COVID proved arduous: windows took a year; the refrigerator, 19 months. Melinda was a five-hour drive from the action, which included a ceiling covered in floor tiles. Vinyl grasscloth graced another ceiling, and gold mesh panels in the built-ins flanking the living room fireplace added texture.

She shopped the High Point Furniture Market and Facebook Marketplace but took measurements for drapes to be made in Charleston. That everything came together so well is a credit to Melinda’s vision.

The newly popular “modern farmhouse” architectural style doesn’t comport with denim overalls and hay bales. Main floor living space, casually sophisticated, is open but divided into angles with high kitchen visibility. Clever doors that fold flat, then disappear, render the veranda an overflow living room for entertaining, furnished in fabric, not outdoor upholstery. Retractable screens and a stone fireplace help control temperature.

Golf lockers line a back entrance. Each son has a bedroom and fantasy bathroom. The oversized suspended light fixtures, both Lauren and bell jar, are simply spectacular.

A range of neutrals played out in moderately sized rooms make the large upstairs game room a shocker. Its 800-plus square feet are divided into a pool hall (blue felt on the table), a TV lounge, gaming table and bar. Wideboards the color of coffee grounds cover the floor, walls and ceiling. Man cave doesn’t come close.

Melinda is proud of several chests rescued from inelegant circumstances and repurposed to glory. The fabric covering Beau’s favorite sofa is the same color as his fur, so it doesn’t show.

True, this will be Christmas without a life-sized sleigh in the front yard. No stockings will hang from either mantel. White will replace twinkling colored bulbs on the trees, at least until the family expands. “When the boys get married and have children, this will be their home base,” Melinda says.

Yo, Santa!

In the meantime, on Christmas Eve the Taylors will host an open house for local friends and others coming from West Virginia. Christmas dinner: beef tenderloin, emerging from a kitchen that appears to have sprung from a magazine cover.

“This is a year for establishing new traditions,” Melinda has decided, in a home she created and calls “my pride and joy.”  PS



December Books


The Exchange, by John Grisham

What became of Mitch and Abby McDeere after they exposed the crimes of Memphis law firm Bendini, Lambert and Locke and fled the country? The answer is in The Exchange, the riveting sequel to The Firm, the blockbuster thriller that launched the career of one of America’s favorite storytellers. It is now 15 years later, and Mitch and Abby are living in Manhattan, where Mitch is a partner at the largest law firm in the world. When a mentor in Rome asks him for a favor that will take him far from home, Mitch finds himself at the center of a sinister plot that has worldwide implications — and once again endangers his colleagues, friends and family.


Babusya’s Kitchen: Recipes for Living and Eating Well in Ukraine, by Returned Peace Corps Ukraine Volunteers

Peace Corps volunteers created this cookbook from the recipes they learned while serving in the small towns and villages across Ukraine. The cookbook serves as a fundraiser for Ukraine Relief Efforts through the RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) Alliance for Ukraine as well as a culinary delight. In addition to the traditional Ukrainian recipes that “provide a window into rural living,” the volunteers include recipes that helped new cooks in a foreign country share American cooking traditions with international friends.

The Secret Lives of Color, by Kassia St. Clair

This unknown history of color tells the unusual stories of 75 fascinating shades, dyes and hues, and the vivid history behind them. From the brown that changed the way battles were fought to the white that protected against the plague; from Picasso’s blue period to the charcoal on the cave walls at Lascaux; from acid yellow to Kelly green; and scarlet women to imperial purple, these surprising stories run like a bright thread throughout history. St. Clair turned her lifelong obsession with colors and where they come from into a unique study of human civilization.

Holidays on Ice, by David Sedaris

No matter what your favorite holiday is, you won’t want to miss celebrating it with the author The Economist has called “one of the funniest writers alive.” Sedaris’ beloved holiday collection is new again with six more pieces, including a never-before-published story. Along with timeless favorites from Santaland are Sedaris’ tales of tardy trick-or-treaters (“Us and Them”); the difficulties of explaining the Easter Bunny to the French (“Jesus Shaves”); what to do when you’ve been locked out in a snowstorm (“Let It Snow”); the puzzling Christmas traditions of other nations (“Six to Eight Black Men”); what Halloween at the medical examiner’s looks like (“The Monster Mash”); and a barnyard secret Santa scheme gone awry (“Cow and Turkey”). The Country Bookshop has autographed copies.

Museum Bums, by Jack Shoulder and Mark Small

What do Hieronymus Bosch, the Roman cult of Antinous and the peach emoji all have in common? Butts, of course! Divided into six categories of keisters, this humorous history book takes you on a whirlwind tour of the finest rear ends in museums around the world — from the lusciously rendered bottoms of Renaissance paintings to the abstract curves of contemporary art. Heritage scholars and art educators Small and Shoulder pair illuminating social commentary, historical context and lively captions with captivating depictions of tasteful — if cheeky — bums in art. Including an angel slyly copping a feel in a 16th century triptych, a 25,000-year-old bodacious Venus, and Cezanne’s dreamy booty-ful bathers, this assortment of artistic behinds is both a celebration and study of the bounty of beautiful bottoms and their everlasting impressions.




How Does Santa Go Down the Chimney? by Mac Barnett, illustrations by Jon Klassen

It’s the age-old question. How does he do it?  If anyone would have access to Santa’s secret file, it’s the team of Klassen and Barnett. With insider info, holiday hilarity and, well, dogs, this is going to be a must-have holiday book. (Ages 3-8.)

The Christmassy Cactus, by Beth Ferry

Oh, my, the cuteness. Cactus will poke her way into your heart in this delightful holiday story of a tiny green spiny cactus who holds her own against giant green shiny trees and proves that holiday wishes do indeed come true. (Ages 3-6.)

The Met: 5,000 Years of Awesome Objects, by Aaron Rosen, Susie Hodge, Susie Brooks, and Mary Richards

You’ll get lost in this history of art for children featuring 5000 years of the most unusual, bizarre, fascinating and awesome objects — practically a museum in itself. (Ages 8-14.)

The Jules Verne Prophecy, by Larry Schwarz and Iva-Marie Palmer

When Owen finds himself stuck in Paris for the summer with his mom, he is sure the whole vacation will be a boring flop, but a mysterious skateboarder, a rare Jules Verne book and a few new friends really turn things around. This wild ride of an adventure journeys through the most amazing sites in Paris, including the Eiffel Tower, the catacombs and a secret skatepark. (Ages 9-12.)  PS

Compiled by Kimberly Daniels Taws and Angie Tally.

December PinePitch 2023

December PinePitch 2023

Toys for Tots

Eat in or drive thru at the 33rd annual Toys for Tots toy and food drive on Sunday, Dec. 10, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., at Beefeater’s Restaurant, 672 S.W. Broad St. in Southern Pines. Sponsored by the Mark “Brook” Westbrook Memorial Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, the cost is either a $10 per-plate donation, an unwrapped toy, or five cans or boxes of non-perishable food. Of course, more is always better. Santa will be on-site from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m. The plates are chopped barbecue or grilled chicken, cole slaw, baked beans, rolls, tea or soda, and dessert. There are nuggets for the kids. Word on the street is Santa is a nugget kinda guy.

Elf on Parade

Marching bands and Santa Claus. What’s not to like? The Southern Pines Christmas Parade will be on Saturday, Dec. 2, from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Santa does the full loop, beginning at Vermont Avenue, down the west side of Broad Street to Massachusetts Avenue, across the tracks then back up the east side of Broad. If any additional information is necessary you can call the North Pole hotline at (910) 692-7376.

And, if you missed him in Southern Pines, the jolly old rascal will be in Vass for its annual Christmas parade on Saturday, Dec. 16, at 11 a.m. There will food and vendors at the Vass Lakeview School, 141 James St., Vass. For more information call (910) 245-4677 or go to www.townofvassnc.gov.

Keeping Christmas Well

The Uprising Theatre Company will present its inventive re-creation of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic, A Christmas Carol, on Tuesday, Dec. 19, at 7 p.m., at The Village Chapel, 10 Azalea Road, Pinehurst. Each show will begin with caroling, to get everyone in the mood. There will be additional performances on Dec. 20 and Dec. 21, also at 7 p.m. For tickets and more information go to www.ticketmesandhills.com.

You Say It’s Your Birthday

It’s Sandhills Community College’s 60th anniversary, and everyone is invited to attend the gala celebration on Monday, Dec. 4, at 7 p.m., at BPAC’s Owens Auditorium, 3395 Airport Road, Pinehurst. The event is for ages 13 and up and the dress is casual but, you know, decent. The lobby opens at 6 p.m. and the curtain rises at 7. The event is free of charge. Tickets can be secured in advance at

Look Out Below

The traditional Pine Cone Drop ringing in the New Year (a bit early) will happen on Friday, Dec. 29, near the railway station in Southern Pines from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. There will be live music, carnival games, face painting and early bedtimes for all. For additional information call (910) 692-7376.

Weymouth Wonderland

The Weymouth Center for the Arts & Humanities, 555 E. Connecticut Ave., Southern Pines, will hold its Outdoor Wonderfest and Market Friday, Dec. 1, and Saturday, Dec. 2, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and again on Sunday, Dec. 3, from noon to 4 p.m. There will be local vendors and artisans to fill Christmas gift lists, crafts, face painting and plenty of food. The marketplace is open to the public. Admission is by any monetary donation. For additional information visit www.weymouthcenter.org.

Lights, Wreaths, Action

The Episcopal Day School will hold its 44th annual Candlelight Tour of Homes on Sunday, Dec. 3, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., featuring five unique Pinehurst and Southern Pines houses decked out in full holiday regalia. The tour’s tariff is $20 in advance and $25 the day of. For information and tickets you can go to www.ticketmesandhills.com or visit the Episcopal Day School front office.

A Tradition Like No Other

The annual Murphy Family Christmas Concert features two shows at 3 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 17, at the Sunrise Theater, 250 N.W. Broad St., Southern Pines. For information and ticketing for this must-see annual celebration of the season call (910) 420-2549 or visit www.sunrisetheater.com.

In the Spirit

In the Spirit

Dissecting a Cocktail

Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s eggnog

By Tony Cross

As a child, I loved it when my mother broke out the eggnog during holiday parties. However, when I reached adulthood, I couldn’t stand more than a cup of the store-bought goop. That all changed a decade ago when I whipped up boozy eggnog from a recipe I found on Portland bartender Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s blog. Not only is Morgenthaler’s version silky smooth, but the flavor profile is insane.

There’s no rum or cognac in this one — there is, however, añejo tequila and Amontillado sherry. Say what? I know, I squinted the first time I read that, too. The combination of a dry, nutty sherry and semi-sweet tequila is perfect for this Yuletide cheer. The first weekend that I made this a cocktail special when I was behind the bar, we almost sold out by Saturday lunch. Not only was it popular with our patrons, but our host, who worked the day shift, pleaded with me to give him any leftovers before we closed for Christmas. This is the best eggnog you’ll ever taste.



12 large eggs

450 grams baker’s sugar

15 ounces Amontillado sherry

12 ounces añejo tequila

36 ounces whole milk

24 ounces heavy cream

Fresh nutmeg, for garnish

In a stand mixer on low speed, beat eggs until smooth. Slowly add sugar until incorporated and dissolved. Slowly add sherry, tequila, milk and cream. Refrigerate overnight and serve in small, chilled cups. Dust with fresh nutmeg before serving. Makes approximately one gallon.  PS

Tony Cross owns and operates Reverie Cocktails, a cocktail delivery service that delivers kegged cocktails for businesses to pour on tap — but once a bartender, always a bartender.

Pleasures of Life

Pleasures of Life

The Forever Christmas Tree

What goes around comes around

By Tom Allen

Vintage is all the craze, a buzzword for something that was once outdated but has become desirable and hip. Millennials, remembering those iconic treasures from their childhood, rummage through thrift stores for everything from clothes to kitchen utensils to furniture begging the label “retro.” 

Vintage Christmas qualifies. Holiday retro is in high demand. Take your mother or grandmother’s beloved ceramic Christmas tree. Popular in the ’60s and ’70s, by the time the earth-toned ’80s rolled around, the trees lost popularity, partly due to aesthetics, also because bulky cathode ray tube televisions were replaced by flat screens. Where to place Granny’s beloved ceramic tree became a challenge.

My mother was gifted a 12-inch ceramic tree in the early ’70s, crafted by a friend who found a retirement hobby making funky owls and mushroom-embossed napkin holders, at a rural ceramics shop. The tree, dark green and flocked with ceramic snow, held multi-colored translucent plastic bulbs. A 60-watt bulb, screwed into the base, illuminated the tree, which rested on a tea cart in the hallway of my childhood home. The tree was visible, and enjoyed, from my parents’ rocker recliners, but only for a few days in December. My mother, a minimalist before the word found its way into the urban dictionary, decorated a week before Christmas. I still remember the thrill of hearing the click of the tree’s on/off light switch, which produced that instant, multi-colored illumination. Pure joy.

Decorations came down a couple of days after the holiday. An elementary school teacher who cherished her holiday break, Mom disliked anything that might capture dust, like a ceramic Christmas tree. More dust meant more cleaning, and more cleaning meant less time to enjoy her break. Though she and my dad enjoyed the tree for years, her pragmatic side always won out. No 12 days of Christmas for their tree, living or ceramic.

My mother’s last Christmas was spent in hospice care, at an assisted living center. I brought her beloved ceramic tree and placed it on a chest of drawers, easy for her to see and enjoy from her hospital bed. The tree’s lights dissipated some of the room’s darkness and cushioned the sadness of her pending loss. That year, she allowed the treasure to stay up after Christmas. The tree was shining bright when she died on a snowy night in late January.

Mom’s ceramic tree made its way home to our house, where we enjoy those same multi-colored lights from Thanksgiving until late winter. I would leave the tree up year round. Last year my wife drew the line on Valentine’s Day.

No longer relegated to the yard sale bin as they were 30 years ago, mid- to late-century ceramic trees are in high demand. Whether made by a beloved aunt or mass produced in the U.S., don’t expect to snag a tree in your local thrift shop for 10 bucks. Vintage trees can go for several hundred dollars. Newer ones, their production outsourced overseas, are still pricey. Smaller versions can be found at Michael’s or Hobby Lobby. I’ve seen larger beauties at Gulley’s Garden Center in Southern Pines, and even on Etsy and Amazon. 

The Vermont Country Store, known as “purveyors of the practical and hard-to-find since 1946,” sells “Made in China” ceramic trees from $15 (5-inch) to over $100 (16-inch). If you’re lucky enough to find one at an antique store, made years ago in the U.S. or by someone’s great-aunt, prepare to pay top dollar. 

Our millennial daughters care little for the Barbie ornaments and personalized creations of their childhood, but both have their eyes on Grandma’s ceramic tree. Sorry, girls, gotta wait on that one.  PS

Tom Allen is a retired minister who lives in Whispering Pines.

Crime at Lark Cottage

Crime at Lark Cottage

Fiction by John Bingham
Illustration by Mariano Santillan

The mystery story that follows was written by John Michael Ward Bingham, the seventh Baron Clanmorris, appearing first in The Illustrated London News around Christmas 1954. Bingham was the author of 17 thrillers, both detective and spy novels. During World War II, and for roughly two decades after, Bingham worked for MI5, the British secret service. He was the inspiration for the master spy George Smiley in John le Carré’s fiction. “He had been one of two men who had gone into the making of George Smiley,” wrote le Carré. “Nobody who knew John and the work he was doing could have missed the description of Smiley in my first novel.”


The weather was foul. It had been snowing, off and on, for some days, but during the last few hours the temperature had suddenly risen, and with the departure of the cold had come the rain, pitting the smooth snow, causing it to fall with soft rustles and sighs from the branches in the coppice which surrounded the cottage on three sides.

Bradley switched off his engine in the black-velvet shadows of the trees opposite the little gate; and went up to the gate, and saw that it bore the name “Lark Cottage,” saw, too, the soft lamplight gleaming through the chinks in the curtains of the front room.

It had been dark for two hours now. A blustery little wind had arisen, sweeping in chilly rushes across the moors, driving the rain before it, and plunging into the little hollow in which the cottage lay.

There was no other habitation in sight.

Bradley unlatched the gate and walked up a narrow path and knocked on the door. For a few seconds he heard nothing. Then came the sound of footsteps, but they did not come to the door. He heard them pass in front of the door, then begin to ascend uncarpeted stairs.

For a few seconds he stood listening, hearing the water drip from the eaves. A sudden gust of wind and rain, stronger than usual, caused him to turn up the collar of his raincoat.

Suddenly, somewhere above him, a window was opened, and the gust of wind died away, and in the silence that followed a woman’s voice said:

“Who is there? What do you want?”

“You don’t know me,” he replied. “I am sorry to trouble you.”

“Who are you?”

“You don’t know me,” he repeated. “My name is John Bradley. It will mean nothing to you, I’m afraid. I got lost, and now I’ve developed car trouble. The clutch is slipping badly. I see there is a telephone line to your cottage. I would be most grateful if I could use it. I’ll naturally pay you for the call.”

He looked up as he spoke. He could see the pale blob of her face in the darkness, peering down at him through the half-opened lattice window. For a second or two she said nothing. Then she said:

“Wait a minute. I’ll come down.”

He heard her close the window, and the sound of her footsteps on the stairs again, and the noise of the door being unbolted.

He followed her into the little hall, and then into the living room. The room was a curious mixture of dark oak furniture, solid and enduring, and cheap modern bric-à-brac.

In a far corner a small Christmas tree, obviously dug from the garden, stood in a red pot. A little girl, aged about 10, was decorating it with bits of silver tinsel. As he came in she held in her hand a small Fairy Queen, made of cardboard, and painted with some silvery, glittering substance.

She was fair-haired and pale, and looked at him gravely, uncertainly; poised, as though prepared to drop everything and run at the first harsh word.

Unhappy, thought Bradley; thin and unhappy, and none too fit. Aloud he said: “That’s a pretty tree you have.”

For a second, warmth crept into the child’s face and lit up the grey eyes, and she seemed about to speak. Then, as the woman spoke, the child thought better of it, and the face assumed again its former cautious expression.

“The phone’s on the windowsill.”

Bradley swung around and looked at the woman. She was about 35, tall and sallow, with dark hair and eyes, the hair brushed back severely from the forehead. Her features were regular and, but for the fact that she was thin, and that her face wore a harsh, embittered expression, he would have considered her handsome for her age.

Bradley said: “I suppose Skandale is the nearest town? Can you recommend a garage there?”

She shook her head. “You won’t get a garage to come out at this time of night.” She paused and added: “I doubt if there’s even a garage open, now, in that dump.”

“You are not from these parts?”

She shook her head again and said: “I come from Brighton.”

Bradley said: “You must find it a bit different up here.” But she was not listening to him. She was standing rigid, her head slightly on one side, as though she were listening. Her neck, her arms, her legs, her whole body was stiff. Bradley, glancing at her hands, saw that they were clenched and pressed to her sides.

But the child was different.

The child’s face was suddenly flushed and eager. She had stopped trying to fix the Fairy Queen to the top of the Christmas tree, and had turned her head towards the window, towards the front of the house and the garden path, and the gate through which a man would normally approach the cottage. She said:

“Did you hear anything, Mummy?”

The question seemed to break the tension. The woman said sharply:

“Julia! Either get on with your tree or go to bed — one or the other.”

The child turned back to her tree, but almost at once turned her head quickly to the window.

Bradley heard the click of the gate, too. So did the woman. The noise came during a momentary lull in the wind, so when the woman said it was the storm blowing the gate nobody believed her, and the child ran to the window and looked out, thrusting the curtains aside, and peering into the night, kneeling on the window seat, nose pressed against the pane. Bradley said:

“You are expecting somebody, perhaps? Well, I won’t bother you any longer. I’ll be on my way. Maybe the clutch will last a mile or two, and I’ll do the last stretch on foot. I take it this road leads to the main road to Skandale?”

The woman was staring towards the window, towards the child. Bradley thought: The child is eager, expectant, but the mother is afraid. At last she said: “It is at least 10 miles to Skandale. You would do better to stay here, Mr. Bradley, and catch the early-morning bus from the end of the lane. I can give you a bed.”

“But if you are expecting somebody — “

“Nobody is coming.”

There was a flurry of movement on the window seat, as the child Julia swung around and cried: “But, Mummy, it said on the wireless — “

“Julia! Come, it’s time for your bed.”

She went to the window and took the child by the hand and jerked her off the window seat and towards the door. At the door she paused a moment and said: “You are quite welcome to stay the night. Julia and I share the same room, and I will make up the bed in the small room for you.”

Bradley caught the strained, almost eager undertone in her voice, and knew that she wanted him to stay; knew that she was afraid and wished for his company in the house; afraid, even though as yet she had not said what she feared — or whom.

“Very well,” he said mildly. “I will gladly stay. It is very kind of you.”

He watched her lead the child out of the room, and heard them mount the stairs, and the sound of voices in an upper room, the woman’s sharp and scolding, the child’s plaintive. Then he went quickly to the window and looked out.

The light from the room was reflected by the snow, so that he could dimly see the garden and path and the gate. But there was no sign of anybody.

He had not expected to see anybody.

He lit a cigarette and wandered slowly round the room, glancing at the books in the bookshelf near the fireplace, at the cheap watercolors on the whitewashed walls.

On a table near the window stood a small silver tray. He picked it up and read the inscription in the middle, written in the impeccable copybook handwriting peculiar to such things:

to fred shaw on his marriage — from his pals at the mill

He replaced the tray and moved to the fireplace, noting the inexpensive china ornaments, the walnut-wood clock. In a light oak frame was a picture of a plump-faced man with fair, receding hair. In the bottom right-hand corner were the words: “To Lucy with love from Leslie.”

He wandered on, looking for something which he somehow knew he would not find; looking for the usual wedding picture, the wedding picture of Fred and Lucy Shaw.

He was not the least surprised not to find it; not in the least surprised to find no trace of Fred Shaw at all, except for the silver tray and that, after all, was worth money.

No trace, that is, until he came to the newspaper lying on the dark oak sideboard, and saw the double-column headlines, and read the text about Frederick Shaw, and how warders and police were scouring the countryside for him.

Frederick Shaw, aged 42. Escaped from Larnforth Prison.

Shaw, the murderer, reprieved because of what Home Secretaries call “just an element of doubt,” and serving a life sentence, with nine-tenths of it still to run.

Shaw, the former overseer, respected in all Skandale, who once or twice a year got a little befuddled with beer; who was known to be on bad terms with his uncle, the Skandale jeweler.


Good-natured old Fred Shaw, who never could explain how his cap and heavy blackthorn stick were found beside the battered body of the jeweler — or even what became of the money they alleged he had stolen.

Bradley put the paper down quickly when he heard the footsteps on the stairs. Too quickly. As he turned away, the big pages slipped over the side of the polished sideboard so that when Lucy Shaw came into the room she saw it lying on the floor and said: “So now you know, I suppose?”

“Yes,” said Bradley, “I know all right.”

Now that the need for acting was past, she stood in front of the fireplace, massaging one hand with the other, staring at him with frightened eyes. A tall, gaunt woman, with a wide, sensual mouth. The harsh expression had left her face. He saw her lips quiver.

“What are you scared of, Mrs. Shaw?” asked Bradley.

“I’m not scared, I’m not at all scared. What should I be frightened of?”

“That’s what I was asking,” said Bradley. He moved to the door and said: “I’ll go and get my suitcase out of the car.”

He went into the hall and out of the front door and down the garden path to the car. She heard the sound of the car door being slammed. On the way back, he paused by the front door. Then he came into the hall and put down his suitcase.

When he came into the living room he said: “Come outside a minute, will you?”

She swung round and stared at him.


“Did your husband — did Mr. Shaw use a walking stick much?”

“He always used one — almost always. He was a bit lame from a mill accident. Why?” And when he did not answer, when he only looked at her without saying anything, she repeated loudly, almost shrilly: “Why?”

“Well, come outside a minute,” repeated Bradley, and groped in his trench coat pocket for his torch. She walked into the hall, and when she hesitated by the front door he said: “Come on, it’s all right. I’m with you and I’m six foot tall and quite strong.”

The wind had dropped now, but the rain still fell; but softly, soundlessly, more in the nature of a moorland mist.

The snow was becoming soft on the surface but was still deep, so that the footprints round the house showed up very distinctly in the light of the torch; so did the small ferrule-holes in the snow on the left-hand side of the prints.

“I suppose he was left-handed,” said Bradley, more to himself than to Lucy Shaw, and saw her nod almost imperceptibly. He raised the torch beam a trifle and said: “See how he turned aside to look into the room? I suppose he saw me in there with you and Julia. I suppose he is waiting for me to go. Then he will come in and spend a few short hours with you, and perhaps take some clothes and money and go.”

He heard a movement by his side, and looked round, and found she had gone back into the house.

When he joined her in the living room she was sitting crouched in a chair by the fire. Her sallow face had turned white. She was trembling violently.

Bradley said: “I think I had better go, after all. I’m keeping him out in the night rain. It’s the police job to catch escaped convicts, not mine. I was a prisoner of war once. I’ve got a sneaking sympathy for them. Poor devil!” he added softly.

But she jumped to her feet, and clutched him by both arms, and said shrilly: “You mustn’t go! Please don’t go!” A thought struck her, and she added, almost in a whisper: “Before the gate clicked — you remember? — the child and I heard a sound. I think it was his hand, perhaps his fingernail on the windowpane, as he looked in through a chink in the curtains.”

Bradley said: “I’m going, unless you tell me why you are afraid.”

He pushed her from him, and she went and stood by the fireplace. After a while she said: “He thought I should have done more for him when he had his trial. He said he was with me at the time of the murder, and I should have said so too.

“But he wasn’t, so I couldn’t say it, could I? After all, you’re on oath, aren’t you, Mr. Bradley?”

“You’re on oath all right.”

“So I couldn’t go and perjure myself, could I? I mean, could I?”

“Men don’t kill women for not doing something, Mrs. Shaw.” He glanced at the gate. “The fire is dying, and there is no more wood. Where is it kept?”

She looked up at him fear in her eyes, and said:

“In the shed near the back door. I can’t go out there and fetch it. I’m not going out there alone.”

“I’ll fetch it. Just come with me and show me where it is. Just come to the kitchen door with me.”

He opened the kitchen door, and she stood with him, and pointed to the shed, a few yards away. The rain still fell, still soundlessly. Somewhere some water was running, gurgling down a drain. Otherwise there was no noise, either in the trees which pressed down upon the cottage or in the glistening bushes which edged their way to within a few feet of the back door.

He shone his torch, first on the shed then on the bushes, and took a step forward, and suddenly stopped as the bushes shook violently and snow cascaded from them.

Behind him he heard Lucy Shaw gasp and sob twice.

“It’s probably only a rabbit,” said Bradley, and walked towards the bushes. For a second he shown his torch at them, then made his way to the shed and gathered a trugful of sawn logs and came back towards the kitchen.


Lucy Shaw stood watching him, afraid to go back into the house alone, afraid to go out into the night with him. She kept passing her hand over her smooth hair, nervously, restlessly, staring out into the night at him with her black, dilated eyes.

The crash of the broken window, the broken living-room window, made her turn and scream; caused Bradley to break into a run; and woke up the child. Bradley heard her calling: “Mummy! Mummy! What’s that?”

Bradley carried the trug with one hand and with the other pushed Lucy Shaw into the house and whispered fiercely:

“Tell her I dropped a vase! Go on, tell her that!”

When the woman had done so, they went into the living-room and saw the stone with the piece of paper wrapped around it lying among the shattered fragments of windowpane. Bradley picked it up and smoothed out the paper, and saw, in capital letters, the word, ADULTRESS. He handed it to Lucy Shaw and said: “He doesn’t seem to think an awful lot of you, does he?”

The curtains were stirring in front of the jagged hole in the window. Bradley flung the logs down by the side of the fire and said abruptly: “I’ve had enough of this! I’m going. You can sort it out yourself with your husband. It’s no affair of mine.”

She flung herself at the door, ashen-faced, and stood in front of it, barring his way. “You can’t leave me here — alone!”

“Who can’t?” asked Bradley tonelessly and watched the curtains billowing into the room as a sudden gust of wind struck them.

“Where are the police?” gasped Lucy Shaw. “Surely the first thing they do is to send men to watch an escaped convict’s home?”

Bradley point to the telephone. “Ring ’em up and tell ’em so. Ask them where they are,” he said. “Go on — ring them up.”

She ran to the telephone and lifted the receiver and listened. When a few seconds had gone by, Bradley said:

“Perhaps the wire is down with the snow. Perhaps he’s cut it — you never know. They do it in books.”

After a minute, the operator answered. Lucy Shaw held her breath for a few seconds to control her voice, to try to restrain the tremor. Then she said: “I want the police! Tell the police to come! This is Mrs. Shaw, Lark Cottage, Oak Lane, off the Skandale-Tollbrook road. Tell them it’s — it’s very urgent! My life is in danger! My — there’s an escaped convict — a murderer — trying to get in!”

She replaced the receiver and stared at Bradley. He glanced at his watch and said:

“They’ll probably be here in half an hour. Three-quarters, at the most. You’ll be all right till then, I expect.”

He moved towards the door.

She did not move, unable to believe that he was really going.

“It’s no business of mine,” he pointed out for the second time. And when she clung to him and began to whimper, he said: “Don’t be daft. He won’t kill you for not perjuring yourself at his trial. He won’t even kill you for carrying on with this podgy-faced blonde brute.” He waved towards the picture on the chimney piece. “Once he’s in the house, you can appeal to him.”

But she clung to the doorhandle, gaunt and unlovely, her black hair now in disarray, and when he tried to move her hands she suddenly flung herself against him, temporarily forcing him away from the door, and said:

“It’s worse than that. He knew Leslie and I were in love, long before his uncle was killed.”

“So what?” said Bradley and moved again towards the door.

“You fool!” gasped Lucy Shaw. “Don’t you understand what I’m trying to tell you? Leslie — Leslie Bond — traveler for Fred’s firm, killed the old man, and stole the money, and planted the evidence against my husband, Fred Shaw — and I knew he had done it!”

“Did you now?” said Bradley mildly. “What’s that to me?”

“And I let Fred go on trial for it, and I’d have let him die for it, too — and he knows it, and that’s why he’ll kill me if you go before the police arrive!”

“Fancy!” said Bradley staring at her. “And your friend, where is he?”

“He left the country, saying he would come back when the case had blown over.”

“And will he?”

“No!” said Lucy Shaw bitterly.

“Not voluntarily!”

As she spoke, her voice rose almost to a scream, and Bradley, watching the hatred flush her sallow face and stretch her mouth into a thin, straight line, knew that the end was at hand.

“Where is he?” he asked abruptly.

“In Melbourne, Australia, and I’ll damn well tell the police when they arrive!”

“You may be charged as an accomplice after the fact.”

“What the hell do I care!” shouted Lucy Shaw. “I’m not going to be done-in tonight, nor 20 years hence, to save Leslie Bond, and I don’t care who knows it!”


Bradley said, woodenly: “If that’s the way you feel, and since you wish to make a statement, I don’t mind telling you now that the police are here already.”

Lucy Shaw looked round. “Where?”

“Here,” said Bradley, and put his hand in his raincoat pocket and produced his warrant card. Almost automatically his voice reverted to a routine drone as he continued: “I am Superintendent Bradley, of Scotland Yard. Sergeant Wood, I believe, has been listening outside that broken window. If you wish to make a written statement, I have some foolscap sheets of paper and a pen.

“I must, however, warn you that you are not obliged to do so, and that anything you say, or any written statement you make from now onwards, may be used in evidence against you. I should perhaps add that your husband was recaptured some three hours ago within a few miles of the prison.”

“What with you skylarking around, trespassing, making footprints, and breaking windows,” said Superintendent Bradley later to Sergeant Wood, “and me extorting confessions through fear and subterfuge, there’s been enough crime committed at Lark Cottage tonight to fill a sheaf of charge sheets.

“Funny, how I always had an uneasy feeling about that case, even though I did collect the evidence which put Frederick Shaw in the dock. Lucky she didn’t attend the trial and know my face.”

He filled his pipe and added: “The kid’ll be glad to be back with her father for Christmas. I reckon she hated her mother. So did I, if it comes to that,” he said, striking a match.

“And so did I,” said Sergeant Wood. “I was frozen stiff.”  PS

Crime at Lark Cottage by John Bingham reprinted by permission of Peters Fraser & Dunlop (www.petersfraserdunlop.com) on behalf of the Estate of John Bingham. Lightly edited for space and style.

Cherish the Thought

Cherish the Thought

Illlustrations by Harry Blair

’Tis the season for making memories. That act of remembering gives us pause. It makes us laugh. Sometimes it makes us cry. What follows are a few precious moments. If nothing else, each and every one of these recollections is a reminder to us all to hold those most dear as closely as we can.

Let There Be Light

December 1971 was cold and wintry. But then, it was always frigid in my small Midwestern hometown that time of year. Light poles on the main street were festooned with glowing decorations, the ground was blanketed in white, and a humongous fir tree was in its usual place on the square.

Christmas trees were a big deal in our town. August Imgard, a German immigrant and local resident until his death in 1904, brought the first Christmas tree to America. He held that distinction for nearly a century until he was demoted like Pluto by some scholarly researcher who found evidence of an earlier tree’s appearance in another municipality — but it was still a big deal to us.

It was a simpler time, the early ’70s. Families seemed closer; neighbors knew each other. I was the youngest of five siblings, and the oldest, Ken, was our undisputed leader. From making meals when our parents were at work, to organizing pickup games in the neighborhood, to finding the best hills for sledding, my brother was always in charge. He delivered newspapers and shoveled sidewalks to make a few dollars, which he shared. I looked up to him, literally and figuratively.

With Christmas right around the corner, schools were out for the holiday, and the local stores were buzzing with last-minute shoppers, their red-cheeked, buttoned-up kids in tow. Hallmark-quality stuff.

But something was missing. The tree on the square was dark, its wires having been cut by vandals. For weeks, it seemed, the blackout continued. The town’s head honchos were unwilling — or unable — to fix the damage to restore the lights. It was upsetting, to say the least, to my 7-year-old self. Where was the Christmas spirit? The kindness, the joy?

Three days before Christmas, two teenaged boys worked outside for hours in below-freezing temperatures splicing together the wires on that huge tree. Ken and his friend John lit up the square in our little town just in time to light the way for Santa’s arrival on Christmas Eve.

A reporter took a picture of those boys, and it was on the front page of the newspaper the next day. One of my sisters found it for me recently. For the record, I still look up to my big brother.        

‒ Pam Phillips

A Special Lesson from my  Orthodox Jewish Grandmother

This story takes place in Chicago, Christmas Eve 1948. My religious Jewish family was getting ready to celebrate Hanukkah.

My mother had received a phone call that my grandmother’s dentures were ready to be picked up. Rather than waiting for the Christmas holiday to be over, my mother went to downtown Chicago to the dentist’s office. She returned by late afternoon and placed the white box containing the dentures on the hallway table.

I do not know what got into me, at age 12, and my sister, age 14, but we felt the Christmas Eve spirit surrounding us. Perhaps it was the lightly falling snow.

With that we decided to go to the Kresge Five and Dime store and buy some little flocked Christmas trees. For 10 cents you could get a 2-inch snow-flocked tree with either a green or red stand. We bought two — one in each color.

We took the dentures from the hallway table, wrapped the box in some tissue paper and put it on the mantel above the fireplace in the living room. Standing on the box were the two small Christmas trees.

My sister and I invited my grandmother to come into the living room and get her dentures. When she saw the Christmas trees, she began her tirade in how disappointed she was with her granddaughters, Vivian and Charlotte. We were making a mockery of the Christian religion. To this day I can see her standing in front of us in her beige dress, covered in a large apron, her voice summoning the memories of the antisemitism she lived through in Lodz, Poland, before coming to America in 1904. Her granddaughters had made a joke about the Christian religion. The Christians let the Jewish people live in peace in the United States. On and on she lectured us.

Every Christmas Eve, no matter where I am, I think of my Grandmother Peshe Epstein and her words of wisdom. My Hanukkah and Christmas wish for all would be that the world could hear and practice the lesson she taught us. May the memory of this wonderful woman be a blessing forever.

  ‒ Vivian R. Jacobson

Grandmother’s House

The year I turned 7, Christmas fell on a Sunday. For most families, that’s not a big deal. For my family, the weekend was the only time off from work for my parents and grandparents. My sister and I knew our parents would pack us up on Friday and “to Grandmother’s house we go” so that we’d all be together on the holiday.

Because we would not be in our own home on Christmas Day — “the most wonderful time of the year” — I’m sure my parents grew tired of us asking, “How will Santa know where to bring our presents?”

“When what to my wondering eyes did appear” on that Friday morning before we left — Santa had made an early trip to our house. In addition to the presents under the tree, he left a letter saying he heard about our dilemma, checked his “Naughty or Nice” list to see that we were in the correct column, and he and Rudolph delivered our presents two days early.

Now in my 50s, I still believe in the magic of Santa. I was lucky enough to live it as a child and again through the eyes of my son. My wish for all children everywhere is for them to experience the same magic all year. “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

‒ Chris Dunn

A Gift in Layers

Every year my father would stay up late on Christmas Eve to bake his special coconut cake. He’d start early in the day with his secret recipe printed on blue copy paper. I don’t know where the recipe originated. He’d have all the ingredients spread out in the kitchen along with the double-boiler pot he pulled out once a year to get the frosting just right. I’d stick around to make sure I could get the leftover crumbs in the pans and have the chance to lick the spatula and scrape what I could from the pot as he patted as much coconut as possible on the frosting of each layer, then around the sides when all the layers were in place. He’d smile and admire his masterpiece and leave it on the dining room table for Christmas Day, tempting the whole house with the sight and smells. I’d be just as eager to get my first piece of that cake on Christmas Day as I was to open presents. I’m sure I have the recipe tucked away somewhere, but I’ve never used it. It wouldn’t be the same. One Christmas after our father was gone, my brother — who inherited the cooking genes — surprised me with the cake. It will forever be one of my favorite memories.

‒ Fallon McIver Brewington

My Personal Playlist

I’d taken up the snare drum in the fourth grade. Dad was a drummer, so there was never any question what instrument I would choose. The next year, on Christmas morning, I remember seeing the red bow on my very own drum set by the tree. My parents worked hard to find it, and getting it was a sacrifice.

But that was only the beginning. I played the drums in my room, one wall away from the living room. Night after night. My mother would tell you it never bothered her. Mothers are like that. Drumming became more than a hobby. It was like teenage therapy. And it was loud.

I played that drum set in my first band in the eighth grade. That same set of drums can be heard on songs from Nathan Davis’ album Out of My Skin. Nathan was at the top of the music scene in Southern Pines and, somehow, I got to record with him when I was 15.

The guitar is my primary instrument now, and it’s how I make my living these days playing with Whiskey Pines, and I am extremely grateful. I never really stopped drumming, though I sure can’t play like I used to. But every once in a while I can still feel the beat of a Christmas morning.

‒Tim Stelmat

Gran’s Chimney Folk

I only knew one grandparent – Gran, my father’s mum. A great lady. At Christmas she would sing The Messiah while ironing, and tell stories, one of which was about the “chimney folk.” She told my brother Bill and me that they lived up the chimney and were always there at Christmastime waiting to find out what we hoped Santa Claus would bring us. She helped us make messages out of tiny bits of paper and, as they were carried up the chimney by the heat and smoke, she used her ventriloquist skills to squeak — a sound she assured us meant that the message had been received! It took a year or two after I stopped “believing” for me to give up on the chimney folk. After all, I had heard them. I even once got into an impassioned argument with my school chums over them, insisting they were real. How could they not know about them?

When Gran first came to live with us, she produced an old, battered kitchen spoon which, from then on, seemed to be used to make everything, including brandy sauce for the Christmas pudding. The spoon had two jobs: first, stirring the sauce; and then the annual ritual of heating it over a match, filling its bowl with brandy and setting it alight while pouring it over the pud, which was then carried into the dining room, everyone cheering.

The years went by and my wife, Camilla, and I made several moves, the last one leaving England for the U.S. in 1987, and the spoon came, too. It now does what it does best here in America, including, very soon, the ritual of brandy sauce and flaming pudding, bringing back all those precious memories of Christmas past, of Gran, and the chimney folk, too. 

‒ Tony Rothwell 

Always in Our Hearts

My husband, Trent, loved Disney World, Christmas and family. He wasn’t ashamed to admit it. Why would he be? He earned a Green Beret and already proved he was an intelligent and capable badass. A Disney affliction wouldn’t take him down a notch at all. We both loved the bubble of the resort; it gave us an opportunity to pretend our lives weren’t filled with war.

In 2011 he decided he wanted his parents and mine to join us for Christmas at Disney — a large family vacation with all of us staying in one giant villa suite overlooking the Magic Kingdom. Every day at 5 p.m. the Magic Kingdom has a small and often overlooked ceremony when they play retreat and fold the U.S. flag that flies over the park. A family is chosen at the beginning of the day to assist with the task. It is random, but they look for a family wearing military affiliated hats or T-shirts. I decided that Christmas it would be us.

I got up early and waited patiently at the City Hall building until I could ask for the gentleman who makes the selection. They told me it was random, but I begged my point. I was told to go wait at The Bakery on Main Street. After an hour and half I was approached by a gentleman who very kindly explained he didn’t normally do this. I told him this was going to be my husband’s seventh deployment. Trent didn’t have a good feeling about it. He brought our parents on this trip so our daughter could celebrate Christmas at Disney with her grandparents. He would have all his favorite things in one place, at one time.

I explained that being honored as the veteran of the day was on his bucket list. His father was a Marine vet; my father was a Navy vet. The gentleman was moved, and he allowed us to retrieve the flag at 5 o’clock. As a family, we stood proudly for a tradition that Walt Disney long respected. My husband held that flag with pride. Someone took a picture of us all together, which we keep on a wall to remind us of that day.

Two weeks later Trent went on his last deployment. He arrived home earlier than his battalion, to Walter Reed Hospital, where his whole family stood beside him one last time as took his last breath. We all went back to Disney the following Christmas, on a vacation he had planned. We brought a unit hat for the kind gentleman who had given Trent one of his last wishes and thanked him for the memory that will always be in hearts.

‒ Beth MacDonald

Gather Together

This will be the first year that my mother, my sister and I will be able to celebrate all the holidays in the same place. Growing up in Norfolk, we would spend Thanksgiving with our extended family, then Christmas together with our own families. Marriage moved my sister to North Carolina, and work moved me to southwest Virginia. For over 25 years, we have had to choose which holiday to celebrate, and where. Do we get together on Thanksgiving or Christmas? My place or yours? My mother moved to Moore County in 2021, and my sister moved here earlier this year. Now the three of us are able to be together without having to rush to get back to our own homes, our jobs and our responsibilities in three separate cities. My sister and I have already planned a holiday schedule of events that includes everything from ice skating (or watching from the sideline) to baking cookies. No doubt, one weekend will be devoted to binge watching holiday movies with our mother, who watches them year-round! Tree lightings, local shopping, pumpkin picking . . . the moments today that will become our memories tomorrow are the most precious of all.   

‒ Sandra Dales



How Now Sea Cow

Heeding the ocean’s call

Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser

Some songs just resonate. With his recent passing, Jimmy Buffett’s “A Pirate Looks at Forty” has played on a near continuous loop on my radio. A perennial favorite, its opening refrain strikes a particular chord:

Mother, mother ocean, I’ve heard you call. 

Wanted to sail upon your waters since I was three feet tall. 

You’ve seen it all, you’ve seen it all.

As a kid, the ocean’s call was powerful. Fed on weekly doses of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, I could not wait to strike out on my own and explore the horizon line far beyond land-locked Eagle Springs. And now, like the middle-aged mariner in Buffett’s song, the feeling of being born in the wrong century and unable to fit into the modern world creeps into the recesses of my mind from time to time. The second verse continues:

Watched the men who rode you, switch from sail to steam. 

And in your belly, you hold the treasures few have ever seen. 

Most of ’em dreams. Most of ’em dreams.

I frequently find myself daydreaming about those early Victorian-aged explorers who set off on years-long voyages across the globe, imagining their thrill in discovering new lands and encountering unknown animals for the first time. The closest I have come to that enchantment, happened while attending the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where a scuba diving class taken as an elective during my sophomore year introduced me to one of nature’s true marvels. To finalize our certification, we had to make a checkout dive in open waters beyond the gymnasium swimming pool. Over Thanksgiving break that year, the class journeyed down to Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge, along the west coast of Florida, where warm, gin-clear freshwater springs provided the perfect environment to complete the scuba training.

During our first dive, while kneeling on the sandy bottom 20 feet below the water’s surface, a large shadow passed over my head. Glancing up, I saw a wild Florida manatee swimming slowly by. Awestruck, in that moment I felt the same wonder those early naturalists likely experienced when encountering such a large animal for the first time.

It was actually Christopher Columbus who first wrote about the manatees of the New World, in his famed journal from 1492. Having encountered three manatees off the coast of what is now the Dominican Republic, he called them “mermaids.”

For the uninitiated, a Florida manatee is a sofa-sized marine mammal that possesses a broad, paddle-shaped tail, two small flippers and a whiskered face reminiscent of a walrus, minus the tusks. True herbivores, with a propensity for dining on vast quantities of seagrass, manatees are often referred to as “sea cows.” 

How Columbus mistook such creatures for the voluptuous sirens of myth and legend is unknown. Granted, he had just spent six long, lonely months at sea, sailing across the Atlantic. Columbus later commented in his journal, more prudently, that “they were not as beautiful as they are painted.”

For such large animals, manatees are quite curious and disarmingly docile. Swimmers and snorkelers from all over the world flock to Crystal River, the only place in the United States it is legal to enter the water with these endangered mammals.

Incidentally, among the staunchest advocates for manatees over the last four decades was none other than that tropical troubadour Jimmy Buffett. In 1981, Buffett joined forces with then-Florida Gov. Bob Graham to form the Save the Manatee Club, a nonprofit organization that continues to this day to campaign for manatee conservation.

Appearing in numerous public service campaigns, Buffett used his immense celebrity to raise awareness for the plight of manatees. He donated money to erect signs throughout Florida waterways warning speeding boaters about the docile mammals; and he was the brains behind the Adopt-A-Manatee Program, an ingenious initiative that engages and inspires the public and has raised millions since its inception in 1984. The adoption model has been so successful that it has been used by numerous conservation groups around the world to raise funds for the protection of other endangered species; everything from whales to gorillas have benefited from Buffett’s genius.

Just this past winter, when a powerful cold front swept out of the Arctic Circle down to the Gulf of Mexico, I visited a waterway next to a nuclear power plant along the shore of Tampa Bay. Despite their large size, manatees lack an insulating blubber layer like that found in whales. As such, the half-ton mammals are particularly vulnerable to cold water temperatures and can quickly suffer from hypothermia.

Hundreds of manatees had crowded into the small canal, where warm water was being discharged by the power plant. Just as many tourists were packed onto a long wooden boardwalk overlooking the canal, gawking at the gentle giants resting in the murky green water. A young boy standing nearby looked up at his father with excited wide eyes and shouted, “Look at all of them!” Followed quickly by, “Wow. Just wow!”

Once again, the ocean’s call was ringing loud and clear.  PS

Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at www.ToddPusser.com.



Wintering Waterbirds

Ducks, geese and swans, oh my!

By Susan Campbell

The arrival of cold weather in central North Carolina also means the arrival of waterfowl. Our local ponds and lakes have been documented to be the winter home to more than two dozen different species of ducks, geese and swans. Over the years, as water features both large and small have been added to the landscape, the diversity of waterfowl has increased significantly. Although we are all familiar with our local mallards and Canada geese, a variety of aquatic birds frequent our area from November through March.

Certainly the most abundant and widespread species is the ring-necked duck, flocks of which can be seen diving for aquatic invertebrate prey in shallow ponds and coves. The males have iridescent blue heads, black sides and gray backs. They get their name from the indistinct rusty ring at the base of their necks. The females, as with all of the true duck species, are quite nondescript. They are light brown all over and, like the males, have a grayish blue bill with a white band around it.

The most noticeable of our wintering waterfowl would be the buffleheads. They form small groups that dive into deeper water, feeding on vegetation and invertebrates. The males have a bright white hood and body with iridescent dark green back, face and neck. They also sport bright orange legs and feet, which they will flash during confrontations. The females of this species are also drab, mainly brown with the only contrast being a small white cheek patch. Interestingly, bufflehead is the one species of migratory duck that actually mates for life. This is generally a trait found only in the largest of waterfowl: swans and geese.

There are several types of aquatic birds similar to ducks that can be identified if one can get a good look, which usually requires binoculars. Common loons can occasionally be seen diving for fish on larger lakes in winter, and even more so during spring and fall migration. Their size and shape are quite distinctive (as is their yodeling song which, sadly, they do not tend to sing while they are here).

Be aware that we have another visitor that can be confused with loons: the double-crested cormorant. This bird is actually not a duck at all but is (along with its cousin the anhinga) more closely related to seabirds, e.g. boobies and gannets. It is a very proficient diver with a sharply serrated bill adapted for catching fish. It is not uncommon to see cormorants in their “drying” pose. Their feathers are not as waterproof as those of diving ducks, so they only enter water to feed and bathe. Most of their time is spent sitting on a dock or some sort of perch in order to dry out.

Two other species of waterbird can be found regularly at this time of year: pied-billed grebes and American coots. Pied-billed grebes are the smallest of the swimmers we see in winter, with light brown plumage, short thick bills and bright white bottoms. Surprisingly, they are very active swimmers. They can chase down small fish in just about any depth of water. In some years, American coots can be quite abundant. These black, stocky birds with white bills are scavengers, feeding mainly in aquatic vegetation. They can make short dives but are too buoyant to remain submerged for more than a few seconds. Given their long legs and well-developed toes, they are also adept at foraging on foot. You may see them feeding on grasses along the edge of larger bodies of water or even on the edge of golf course water hazards.  PS

Susan Campbell would love to hear from you. Feel free to send questions or wildlife observations to susan@ncaves.com.